Nearly a year ago, some members of the Previsualization Society and I were invited to present a technical brief on the previsualization process to an international gathering of cinematographers at the American Society of Cinematographers clubhouse in Los Angeles. Needless to say, I was very excited about this prospect because cinematographers as a whole have been somewhat resistant to the previs message. Its not too surprising. This is a very traditional group of professionals with a history that spans back to the formation of the art itself. Change is calculated and new processes and techniques that could alter the state of cinematography are thoroughly examined before ever mainlined into the craft. Why should an evaluation of our previs information be any different?
As we proceeded to layout our information, I could sense a growing restlessness in the room. Something was off and when we came to one particular slide in our presentation, the room essentially divided. This slide was never intended to depict hierarchy or departmental importance, but it was immediately interpreted as such. The slide depicted all the various departments of a film production (including the director, vfx, and camera) around a central "previs department" hub routing info to editorial. The idea was to suggest that previs could act as a central core to a live action production by becoming a digital content nexus for data, communication and shot production. It was a simple depiction but quite frankly I believe it makes sense.
Live action films, particularly VFX heavy tent pole type movies are becoming more and more animation like in their approach to film production due to a greater dependence on motion capture, animated characters and digital environments within their scenes. Within traditional animated films, the layout department acts as the central hub of production by routing shots in and out to other departments as the film progresses. Layout is tied directly to editorial who in turn is in constant contact with the story department. These three departments work in harmony to craft the final product.
Within live action, the workflow is more convoluted and definitely not as harmonious. For many years, live action directors had to improvise solutions to plan and block difficult sequences because they didn't have a dedicated story or layout department of their own. Taking a que from animated films storyboarding came to the rescue, but as films became more digital and visually complicated, something more sophisticated was required. Previs is a direct result of that evolution. Today CG artists with computers can recreate any number of conditions that can allow directors rapid access to the beginnings of the visual narrative without having to wait. In an additional plus, when previs effectively integrates with editorial in live action preproduction it becomes an extremely powerful solution to conceptualize an entire film before its even shot. Modern films like Real Steal and Tin Tin are proving this concept quite effectively.
So why the division amongst the cinematographers? Some were pro previs, others definitely were not.
Cinematographers are artists. Plain and simple. Not only that, they're one of three primary visionaries that influence a film's destination. They are charged with establishing the visual narrative of a film through a series of artistic, photographic tools. As an artist, the cinematographer works with the director to visualize the written narrative supplied by the scriptwriter, while the director effectively marries the those two narratives into a cohesive production fueled by his overall vision for the film. Its this collaboration between scriptwriter, cinematographer and director that captures lighting in a bottle.
If you re-read that last paragraph more carefully, you'll see the foundational problem a number of cinematographers have with previsualization. Its not that they think previs isn't helpful from its technical potential to solve problems, but rather the conflict lies with the previs department being hired by production to help the director conceptualize a potential visual narrative. Here lies the real source of tension.
The evolution of previs is a natural by-product of a studio system that places extreme demands on its directors while also pressing the agenda to save money. Cinematographers and editors in preproduction seems like an extreme expense to most studio executives, so when lower cost CG artists stepped up to meet the needs of the director, the idea fit but it came at the cost of diminishing the cinematographer's role.
Yuri Neyman ASC, one of the cinematographers present that day of the presentation, sees this conflict and has decided to do something about it. He is a strong supporter of the previs process and he contacted me to help him conceptualize the idea of a new cinematography school dedicated to teaching new techniques and technologies like previs to potential and professional cinematographers. If cinematography is to evolve, understanding these digital workflows is essential. Since then he has gathered quite a contingent of professionals along with Vilmos Zsigmond ASC as chairman of the board and the Global Cinematography Institute was born.
Ultimately I'm very honored to be collaborating with such distinguished company. I believe schools like GCI are critical to future filmmakers and I wish GCI the best of luck. I look forward to supplying previs classes to its talented student body.